Cinema and Drama

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Similarities and Differences

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Live drama is an ancient art form with thousands of years of recorded history and ongoing cultural vitality. Cinema is a much newer art form, with a history dating back only to approximately 1895 but having a mass appeal that has pushed live theater into a secondary position in all but a handful of urban locations.

As art forms, theater and cinema have important likenesses and intriguing differences. First, both are primarily story-based art forms. Second, both live drama and cinema depend primarily on performers and performance to communicate the story to the audience. A stage play or a screenplay can be read like a novel, but only speaking, gesturing human actors can give the story its full, intended realization. Third, both drama and cinema share certain common supporting features. These include sets, props, costumes, and all the other elements that make up mise en scène; music and other sound effects; and a play script in which the primary thrust of the story is articulated through human speech or “dialogue.” Even in the silent era, films relied heavily on human speech that was understood through contextual intuition; a combination of gesture, facial expression, and lip reading; and inserts of printed, projected text.

Despite—or, perhaps, because of—these many likenesses, much has been written about the differences between the two media. For instance, in cinema circles, the terms “talky” and “stagey” are negative adjectives that imply the film has not liberated itself from its stage-bound origins. In the world of motion pictures, “cinematic” is the primary form of praise, implying that the film makes use of the advantages (camera angles, editing, special effects) offered by the medium.

In part, these kinds of distinctions derive from the historical rivalry of the two forms. However, they also point to certain crucial conditions of production. Indeed, they can all be said to originate in one specific condition: dramatic scripts or “plays” are produced on a stage, by actors performing directly and personally in the company of the audience. In cinema, however, the actors perform for the director and the camera. Their performance is recorded on an intermediary medium, traditionally celluloid film and increasingly digital formats, to be cut and manipulated for an audience who will be present for a performance of two-dimensional simulacra of the live actors. From this single difference—which can be located specifically in the intermediary function of camera and film—come nearly all of the much discussed differences between the two media.

For instance, the visual field of cinema is potentially much greater than that of stage production. This is a direct function of the wonderful mobility of modern camera equipment and advances in cinematic special effects. The stage is capable of splendid effects of spectacle, but no stage could convincingly deal with the events of films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Performers work in very different circumstances. The stage actor prepares his or her role to be performed sequentially, in real time, from beginning to end in a single developing sequence. The screen actor works piecemeal, creating the role in fragments that the director and editor stitch together in post-production to create the illusion of a sequential, emotionally evolving performance.

On the live stage, the performer is always conscious of playing directly and personally to the audience. Mistakes cannot be edited out in post-production, and charisma must be generated from within and projected throughout the house without the aid of lingering, larger-than-life closeups or other amplifications of effect that the camera is uniquely qualified to create.

Still, despite the differences between the...

(This entire section contains 698 words.)

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two media, there are core abilities and practices that keep stage and screen united. Most screenwriters start out writing plays because, above all, they must master the art of creating character, plot, and theme through the spoken word. Most actors learn and perfect their craft on the stage before live audiences. Even though many actors leave the stage when the world of film calls, few can say they have made it without stage experience, and a surprising number return to the stage on a regular basis to refresh their art and to renew their acquaintance with their audience.

The Beginnings

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Historically, the art of narrative cinema is intertwined with its great historical precursor, the live theater. The nature of this relationship has long been a contentious issue in film criticism and theory. Secure in the cinema’s current dominance as the premiere source of performed story art, film theorists tend to stress the cinema’s uniqueness and its independence from stage-bound limitations. However, filmmakers were not always so eager to stress such differences, and in the early days of movies often tried explicitly—and successfully—to appropriate the success of the live theater.

Although human speech is the core of stage drama, cinema, an almost silent medium for its first three decades, began from the start to incorporate elements of stage practice and personnel into the filmed product. During these years, vaudeville sketches and theatrical excerpts were routinely filmed and exhibited in cinema theaters and nickelodeons. A parallel development led to full-length stage plays appearing on screen in condensed versions. William Shakespeare was a favorite for such treatment, in part because the stories were well known and the written texts accessible. Additionally, as the silent film moved into its mature phase (1910-1927), the desire to put full-length plays on screen helped producers like Adolf Zuckor and Daniel Frohman and their Famous Players Film Company to break the industry’s own self-imposed one- or two-reel (fifteen- to thirty-minute) limit on theatrical films. Thus the full-length stage play helped give rise to the full-length feature film.

Among the famous stage plays that found their way to the silent screen were Sir James Barrie’s Peter Pan: Or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (pr. 1904; film 1924), Owen Wister and Kirk La Shelle’s stage adaptation of Wister’s popular novel The Virginian (1902; film 1914), Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (pr. 1892; film 1925), and Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie (pr. 1921; film 1923), later pronounced by O’Neill as one of his two favorite screen adaptations of his own work.

The Early Sound Era

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Throughout the silent-film era, inventors were working to produce systems that would allow sound (particularly dialogue) to be recorded for synchronized reproduction with the film. This development came to fruition with the nearly simultaneous development of Vitaphone, Phonofilm, and Movietone. Vitaphone was the first to make it to the screen, in the Warner Bros. adaptation of Samson Raphaelson’s stage hit The Jazz Singer (pr. 1925; film 1927).

Though sound now seems like an obvious asset to the film industry, it met with initial resistance from the major studios, who were reluctant to pay for the new equipment, and from some filmmakers, who feared sound would turn cinema into mere filmed theater. The believers were smaller commercial studios such as Warner Bros. and Fox which correctly predicted that synchronized sound would give them a competitive edge against the established major studios such as Paramount.

The immediate popularity of the new sound film also created an even more favorable market for scripts that had already proven themselves on the stage. John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh estimate that at least 28 percent of feature films released between 1928 and 1930 were based on stage plays.

The standard-bearer was Eugene O’Neill . Anna Christie was remade for sound to serve as Greta Garbo’s talking debut in the role of Anna. The film stayed faithful to the stage play, with a minimal effort to “open up” with exterior scenes, and is now largely regarded as a classic example of a stage play that never quite became cinema, despite a powerful script and excellent cast. Other O’Neill plays that came to the screen during the 1930’s and 1940’s included The Long Voyage Home (pr. 1917; film 1940), Strange Interlude (pr. 1928; film 1932), and The Emperor Jones (pr. 1920; film Emperor Jones, 1933). The latter two were among O’Neill’s most daring antirealistic theatrical experiments, and both of the subsequent films show the strain of the attempt to domesticate them for the screen.

In general, it proved easier to translate the more conventionally realistic playwrights to the screen than O’Neill, whose inventiveness derived from a deep rethinking of the expressive possibilities of the live theater. The pull of the movies of this era was toward realism, whether in comedy or drama. One playwright who made the transition successfully and frequently to the screen was Lillian Hellman with The Little Foxes (pr. 1939; film 1941), Watch on the Rhine (pr. 1941; film 1943), and The Children’s Hour (pr. 1934), the latter filmed as These Three in 1936. Other 1930’s and 1940’s playwrights whose stage work made it to the screen were Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, Robert E. Sherwood, Maxwell Anderson, Claire Boothe, and Philip Barry.

The 1950’s and 1960’s

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Despite the impressive list of plays that achieved both artistic and commercial success during the 1930’s and 1940’s, it would appear that the greatest era of this crossover activity came during the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Not only did a new generation of important writers of drama and comedy emerge on Broadway, but also that unique and distinctive New York invention, the Broadway musical, came fully into its own, both on the stage and in expensive, lavishly staged, star-studded, full-color Hollywood versions.

The main creative engine of the Broadway-to-Hollywood movement of nonmusical stage plays was undoubtedly Tennessee Williams . Among his stage works that came to the screen during this period were The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944; film 1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (pr. 1947; film 1951), The Rose Tattoo (pr. 1951; film 1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (pr. 1955; film 1958), Suddenly Last Summer (pr. 1958; film 1959), Sweet Bird of Youth (pr. 1959; film 1962), and The Night of the Iguana (pr. 1961; film 1964). With these seven theater-to-film plays, Williams stretched the American filmgoer’s imagination in the dark areas of desire, passion, loneliness, and forbidden sex. The censors were able to soften the details of Williams’s themes, but there was no way to hide them completely.

The plays of William Inge also made impressive transitions from stage to screen. These included Come Back, Little Sheba (pr. 1950; film 1952), Picnic (pr. 1953; film 1955), Bus Stop (pr. 1955; film 1956), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (pr. 1957; film 1960). Other strong plays that made good movies include George Axelrod’s The Seven Year Itch (pr. 1952; film 1955), Donald Bevan’s Stalag 17 (pr. 1951; film 1953), Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy (pr. 1953; film 1956), William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker (pr. 1959; film 1962), and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (pr. 1962; film 1966). Two plays by African American authors that brought black concerns to a mainstream audience were Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun (pr. 1959; film 1961) and LeRoi Jones’s (Amiri Baraka’s) Dutchman (pr. 1964; film 1966), the latter bringing a distinctly Off-Broadway sensibility to the issues of race, class, and sex in the big city.

The 1950’s and 1960’s were also notable for the adaptation of Broadway musicals to the Hollywood screen. Musical films had been part of cinema since the development of commercially and technologically feasible synchronization processes, and the New York stage had always been home to a variety of musical stage shows, ranging from nonnarrative musical reviews to lightweight, formulaic musical comedies to the more narratively unified and musically refined operettas of Sigmund Romberg, Victor Herbert, and others. Many of these were turned into popular films, but in 1943, with the production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma!, the Broadway musical achieved a new level of musical and theatrical dynamism.

Eager for product that would fill its new wide-screen technologies with color, music, and spectacle (and do something that the rising television medium could not match), Hollywood lavished talent, time, and money on a series of new musicals of unparalleled vitality and variety. The greatest names in American musical theater—Rodgers, Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Moss Hart, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein, and more—were brought to screen audiences in the United States and around the world. Among the greatest productions during this era were Annie Get Your Gun (pr. 1946; film 1950), Show Boat (pr. 1927; film 1951), Kiss Me, Kate (1948; film 1953), Oklahoma! (film 1955), The King and I (pr. 1951; film 1956), The Music Man (pr. 1957; film 1962), My Fair Lady (pr. 1956; film 1964), West Side Story (pr. 1957; film 1961), The Sound of Music (pr. 1959; film 1965), and Hello, Dolly! (pr. 1964; film 1969).

After the 1960’s

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After 1969, mounting such spectacular shows and moving them to Hollywood seemed to grow more difficult. Bob Fosse became a force with Sweet Charity (1966; film 1969) and Cabaret (pr. 1966; film 1972), but the most creative single individual working on Broadway, Stephen Sondheim, seemed all but ignored by Hollywood (his A Little Night Music of 1973 was filmed for release in 1977 by a European production group). “New age” stage hits such as Hair (pr. 1968; film 1979), Godspell (pr. 1971; film 1973), and Jesus Christ Superstar (1971; film 1973) had bumpy roads to the screen. With a pair of notable exceptions—Grease (1972; film 1978) and A Chorus Line (1975; film 1985)—the great age of Broadway musical adaptation ended with the 1960’s.

More in the traditional mode has been the work of Neil Simon, one of the very few stage playwrights whose work—like that of O’Neill, Hellman, Williams, and Inge before him—almost always brings a guaranteed audience with it. From Barefoot in the Park (pr. 1963; film 1967) to Lost in Yonkers (pr. 1991; film 1993), Simon has written stage comedies that Hollywood loves to screen, top stars love to act in, and audiences line up to see.

The younger generation of playwrights has produced some challenging plays that have been made into interesting, often critically and commercially successful films, but most have not sustained a cinema connection by playwriting alone. Those who have forged careers in stage and screen have done so in the manner of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin, by becoming screenwriters, producers, and directors of their own work and that of others. In the case of Sorkin, television has beckoned, and Sorkin has responded with the popular and critically successful television program The West Wing (1999).

Shakespeare on Screen

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With the evident slippage of relationship between the stage playwright and the silver screen, it is noteworthy that one playwright who remains current is one of the classics, William Shakespeare, whose plays came to the screen in no fewer than one dozen theatrical screen releases since 1990 alone. Shakespearean screen production has a long and distinguished place in the history of the relationship between drama and cinema.

The filming of Shakespearean texts (not contemporary language adaptations) reframes the argument over whether the image should be more important than the word in filmmaking. The image remains primary, but such is the power and prestige of Shakespeare’s poetic speech that it goes a long way to evening the balance in critical debates. In addition, because Shakespeare’s imagination ranged freely beyond the limits of the physical stage, it rarely seems strange or forced to open up the texts to multiple locations or settings. Finally, although Shakespeareans and moviegoers may debate over whether to be “authentic” or modern in costume and setting, actual Elizabethan stage practice seemed to be tolerant of both approaches, and this invites experiment and innovation on both stage and film.

A short list of notable Shakespeare films would have to include the major works of such Shakespearean auteurs as Laurence Olivier, Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601; film 1955), Henry V (pr. c. 1598-1599; film 1944); Orson Welles, Othello (pr. 1604; film 1952), Chimes at Midnight (1967; adaptation of several Shakepeare plays); Franco Zeffirrelli, The Taming of the Shrew (pr. c. 1593-1594; film 1966), Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596; film 1968); and Kenneth Brannagh, Henry V (film 1989), Hamlet (film 1996), Much Ado About Nothing (pr. pr. c. 1598-1599; film 1993). However, there are many other films of varying degrees of fidelity to or freedom from the Shakespearean text that capture on film the spirit of Shakespeare’s multifaceted genius. Remaking Shakespeare keeps the cinema in a fruitful and honest relationship with its theatrical roots.

Legacy of the Stage

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The complexities of the relationship between cinema and drama resist comfortable generalizations. As much as cinéastes may assert the independence of the cinema from the stage, there can be no doubt that historically the early filmmakers were dependent on the theater both for performing talent in all genres and for story material that brought with it strong conflicts, human dimensions, engaging stories, and storytelling techniques, and rich resources of character and character development. Scholarship in silent film shows this was as true before the coming of sound as it certainly was afterward. Experience has shown that the simple filming of a great play rarely makes a great movie. Experience makes it equally evident that a great movie is impossible without the inner, dramatic resources developed first for the live stage.

A review of the film industry’s own major honors, the Academy Awards, is an interesting indicator of the high regard with which Hollywood still rewards a good stage play. Consider these winners of the Best Picture Award: You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Casablanca (1943), Hamlet (1948), West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), A Man for All Seasons (1966), Oliver! (1968), Amadeus (1984), and Driving Miss Daisy (1989). These outstanding theatrical films are just a small sampling of numerous other filmed plays in which directors, actors (lead and supporting), and other talented theater and film professionals were honored by their peers. Ultimately, the lesson is that while the cinema may have outgrown its theatrical precursor in entertainment industry power and prestige, it still recognizes the need to make use of the theater, to be renewed by it, and to honor it.


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Brady, Ben. Principles of Adaptation for Film and Television. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998. A veteran television producer and screenwriter, Brady provides a vivid how-to book concerning all aspects of the adaptation process, from evaluating the potential of a written narrative, to character and dialogue development, to understanding “camera language.”

Buhler, Stephen M. Shakespeare in the Cinema. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Examines the history of Shakespearean film adaptations, with chapter titles that include “Shakespeare and the Screen Idol,” “Ocular Proof: Three Versions of Othello,” “The Revenge of the Actor-Manager,” and “Documentary Shakespeare.”

McAuliffe, Jody, ed. Plays, Movies, and Critics. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994. A collection of essays exploring the interconnections between drama and cinema, including interviews with noted figures such as Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kauffmann.

Manville, Roger. Theater and Film. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1979. After some concise theoretical chapters, this readable, informative book makes its main points through careful analyses of a small group of individual films.

Phillips, Gene D. The Films of Tennessee Williams. Philadelphia, Pa.: Art Alliance Press, 1980. Explores the adaptations of Williams’s plays into film and looks at the portrayal of the American South in cinema.

Rothwell, Kenneth S. A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A wide-ranging, well-written, genuinely comprehensive historical overview of the top films from the 1890’s to the 1990’s.

Tibbets, John C., and James M. Welsh. The Encyclopedia of Stage Plays into Film. New York: Facts on File, 2001. A handsome, well-illustrated reference work with excellent overview essays and individual play entries. An indispensable source.